Last weekend, I watched the season finale of Syfy’s The Expanse and, man, was it good. All week, I have found my thoughts drifting back to those final scenes, reprocessing what happened and speculating as to what will happen next.
The reason for this, I think, lies primarily in the show’s very careful pacing. The story has a slow start. Much of the first few episodes entails acclimating the audience to our universe in the future, where man now lives on the moon, Mars, and within the asteroid belt, and to the key players within the narrative that unfolds. Once every chess piece is in place then the brakes are released and the show slowly begins to pick up speed, culminating in the explosive double-episode finale. These final episodes also only unlock just the right number of key mysteries to temporarily satiate our curiosity, leaving deeper and more complex questions yet to be solved in season two.
I love this gentle pacing because it allowed the creators to introduce the audience to a really believable and compelling world with layers of politics, socioeconomics, scientific development, religion, and more. Shows that move too quickly feel overtly manipulated and far too event-driven, when what we should care about is the characters and/or the state of the world.
The characters are one area in which I have mixed feelings. I did not immediately connect with any of the characters initially–they are an eclectic collection of individuals with obscure motivations and histories. As the show progressed, however, I did find myself fascinated and compelled by the various females in the story. While the men are mostly predictable, the women are ambitious, resourceful, and surprising. Unfortunately, the women are also either secondary characters or mediated to us through a male character. At the center of the story is Julie Mao, the daughter of a rich and powerful Earther, who suddenly goes missing. Whatever she is doing in space seems quite fascinating, but we only get glimpses of her throughout the show and never really meet her. Police detective, Joe Miller, who is based on the asteroid station Ceres, is tasked with finding Julie. He’s vaguely interesting, but then there is his partner (I think?) Octavia and his boss, Police Captain Shaddid, who both seem compelling until Joe cuts them out of his life, so the audience no longer has access to them. Meanwhile, the crew of an interplanetary ice freighter accidentally gets pulled into the conspiracy behind Julie’s disappearance, and here again, the most interesting crew members are the women, while male characters like Jim Holden, the second officer, take center stage. The one exception is perhaps found back on Earth with UN Ambassador Chrisjen Avasarala. She is actually at the center of power and dictates her own story, but she’s not the kind of person with whom one might easily resonate.
What is really compelling about this show, however, is the political drama at play. Earth is overpopulated and running out of resources, so the colonization of Mars occurred originally as an extension of Earth and solution to some of Earth’s problems. But Mars developed its own military-oriented culture and now sees itself as a separate entity from Earth with its own goals and motivations. Both Mars and Earth mine the asteroid belt for necessary resources, such as ice and metal ores, giving rise to yet a third community–the Belters. These are the men and women of the mining industry, who are essentially serf laborers for Earth and Mars. Not only are their living conditions terrible, but living in the artificially controlled atmosphere of the asteroid belt has taken its toll on their bodies. Anybody born in the belt has inherited a body unable to sustain the heavy atmosphere of Earth, thus trapping them in space. Much of the show is oriented around the Belters exploring what resistance and a better future might mean for them. Meanwhile, the Mormons constitute the fourth significant cultural influence in this universe, but nobody is really sure what they’re up to. . . but it involves building a really big ship.
Julie Mau’s disappearance sparks a series of inquiries that uncover a number of questions and tensions between each of the above communities. Everyone is pointing a finger at everyone, so this show becomes a grandiose mystery narrative, where you the audience, along with the protagonists, are trying to figure out who to trust and who to fear. These dynamics are absolutely fascinating and brilliantly constructed. While the individual characters may be a bit flat and in need of better writing, for this first season of The Expanse, the larger cultural communities step into the role of primary players in a manner that I think actually works quite well. Next season, I suspect we will start to get to know the individuals on a more intimate level.
Plus the show is visually stunning, both in terms of cinematography and visual effects. Combined with the pacing and politics, The Expanse is a really fantastic surprise from Syfy and well-worth a watch if you enjoy science fiction. The fan community for the show is also really involved, so if you end up watching the show, check out their subreddit or Twitter pages.
Thanks to Allan Bagge who first recommended the show to me. As always, you gave me a great recommendation!
Featured image courtesy of NASA.